Saturday, November 21, 2009

No-Win Situations

When I was in my late teens, I had a poet friend whose name was Arthur Gregor, who happened to be a well-connected dude in the art and literary circles of New York. He threw a big party once and invited me to come. I was very excited--until my mother rolled right over it and told me I couldn't go. The reason being that it was totally inappropriate for a young woman to go unaccompanied to a man's apartment. It didn't matter that there would be dozens of other people there. "What if he tries something?" my mother wanted to know.

The truth is that Arthur Gregor would never have "tried something" with me, because he was gay. But I didn't dare tell that to my mother, as it would only have made things much, much worse. My mother was the first person who taught me about no-win situations. And I was definitely afraid of her.

This week I've been thinking a lot about people who make you feel afraid, and people who don't--Sarah Palin falling into the first category, and Barack Obama into the second. Then I happened on a couple of random sentences while reading something: "He's ridiculous, and yet you have to take him very seriously." (Change the "he" in this case to "she.") And, "To be a leader, you have to make them fear you and love you at the same time." That really got me thinking. One thing I can tell you for sure about Sarah Palin is that, like my mother did, she scares me. She's got chutzpah, is punitive, and is on the attack. But she's also got a lot of fans who love her, and her neurotic lust for destruction is gaining the upper hand. In the Huffington Post, Ian Gurwitz confessed that Sarah Palin scares him, too. "She's the anti-Susan Boyle," he wrote. "She's physically appealing. But she can't fucking sing."

Here is a recent statement Palin made to Bill O'Reilly on her qualifications for the presidency (hat tip to The Daily Dish): "I believe that I am [qualified to be president] because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of a spinelessness that perhaps is made up for that with some kind of elite Ivy League education and a fact resume that's based on anything but hard work and private sector, free enterprise principles." The last line gets four stars. Three cheers for no education!

Well, to borrow this train of thought, Obama definitely knows how to "sing," and he is also physically appealing, but I am beginning to wonder about his ability to strike fear--and whether or not this matters in public life when you have to make deals and squeeze advantage out of tough negotiations. The verdict on his China trip is that he was too deferential. So far neither the Israelis nor the Mullahs in Iran have paid him much heed. And Republicans act like they are standing on his balls, waving the American flag. This week Obama's approval ratings slipped to just under 50%. It's not the end of the world by any stretch, but I can't help wondering if ultimately, this has anything to do with an absence of the fear factor fulfilling the laws of its being within the presidency.

Mercifully. we don't have suicide bombers over here; however, instead of loaded vests, we use lies as explosives to blow everything up, and believe me, it's working. (Has anyone seen the latest Republican ads against health-care reform?) Fact-checking organizations are working overtime to refute them, and believe me, it's not working. So far, I've never seen our President pound his fist on the table or the podium, demanding to know "Who said that?" or "Who did that?"--and glare at everyone. And I am beginning to wonder if being grown up and socially responsible and self-contained is going to be enough to keep the world from ending in communal failure. I desperately hope the President won't miss his cue, and that one day soon we'll hear the loud crack, as his fist finally meets the table.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Taliban Dreams (4): Political Suicide

I've suggested in previous posts that with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama is having to make his moves on an already check-mated board. None of his choices--whether to escalate and "surge," or to de-escalate and withdraw, or to stick with the bare minimum and just contain--have any significant chance of success. In such circumstances, it is unbearable to be the person in charge of sending exhausted soldiers ever more deeply into the jaws of death--and you can see the president wrestling with kaleidoscopic feelings as he paces his cage like a trapped animal, trying to make sense of his rotten choices. Andrew Sullivan put it even more succinctly:

"The awful truth is what 9/11 revealed, and what it was designed to reveal, is that there is nothing we can really do definitively to stop another one." I didn't think it would be possible to sound a bleaker note than my own, but Sullivan manages it. "If you calculate the costs of that evil attack against the financial, moral, and human costs of the fight back," he writes, "9/11 was a fantastic demonstration of the power of asymmetry to destroy the West....Everything that has subsequently transpired has merely deepened that lesson. The U.S. is now bankrupt, trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of our lives, unable to prevent the two most potentially dangerous Islamist states, Pakistan and Iran, from getting nukes, morally compromised and hanging on to global support only because of a new president who is even now being assaulted viciously at home for such grievous crimes as trying to give more people access to health insurance." So much for spitball politics and the art of the impossible.

I predict that when the bipartisan attacks explode over Obama's Afghanistan policy, once it has been officially announced, the health care debates will quickly seem like dry catarrh in comparison with a lethal case of swine flu. In other words, when it comes down to "vicious assaults," we ain't seen nothin' yet. "I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president," Garry Wills writes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. "The charges from various quarters would be toxic--that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he would have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate."

What Wills is saying, in so many words, is that for Obama to quit Afghanistan at this stage would be to commit political suicide. Quite simply, it would make him into a one-term president.

"But what justification is there" he asks, "for buying a second presidential term with the lives of hundreds or thousands of young American men and women in the military?...I would rather see him a one-term president than have him pass on another unwinnable war to the person who will follow him in office."

If Obama is already in an implacable "no-win" situation regarding his choices in Afghanistan, the choices facing him right here at home are no less lethal. Wills is suggesting that some leader has to finally break the spell and give the military a break and a chance to recover, and that Obama is the best person to do that. It is unlikely, he thinks, that there will be another president in the foreseeable future with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. "If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?" he writes.

Not being one more president willing to kick the can down the road would indeed be a major achievement, I agree. But if the cost of getting ourselves out of these unwinnable wars entails the predictable demise of our president, that is a staggering price to pay--one that, with a challenged Obama out of the picture, could be the final, ruinous checkmate for our country. Even in a world of long shadows, this would be a bitter trade-off. The very prospect makes me twitchy.

Of course there are just as many millions of Americans who have already determined that if Obama DOES decide to pour more troops and resources into Afghanistan--the biggest black hole ever--they will also withdraw their support of him forever. Either way, Obama is now a moving target: America's new scapegoat. Whatever he decides, he stands to lose major support, big time, either way. It's not a pretty picture. The saddest part is, if Obama loses, which seems to be how the internal politics of all this is aligning, every one of us will become a loser as well, right along with him. We have no viable replacement.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Taliban Dreams (3): The Jihadist in Our Midst

There was an amusing cartoon in The New Yorker several weeks ago of a male customer in a shoe store, examining the athletic shoes arrayed in rows along a wall. The shoe groups were sectioned off with labels above them, such as "Running" and "Hiking." The man was studying the final group, which was labeled "Blogging."

If there really were such a thing as blogging shoes, I'd head out and buy myself a pair, because being a blogger definitely makes you feel like you are always racing, away from the last blog and towards the next one, with no end in sight and no one handing out bottles of Gatorade along the way. Unless you decide to give it up and stop blogging altogether, or you happen to die, you will always have to keep slogging on, relentlessly, even when you have no idea what you are going to write about next, which is always the case with me. I'm forever hanging off the side of cliff when it comes to subject matter. Blogging, I can now say from acute personal experience, is a perfect fit for what Ken Wilber (the integral theory guy) calls "Mind Module Practice."

Mind Module practices include any activity (reading, studying, writing, etc.) that expands your ability to take more adequate perspectives. I read an interview in EnlightenmentNext magazine with Terry Patten, a co-author with Wilber of a new book called "Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening," in which Patten says: "You have to be able to take very complex, nuanced perspectives. Sometimes you have to be able to relax and let go of those perspectives. You need the flexibility to meet a moment without any preconceptions, and to be able to generate a framework for understanding and seeing it in a way that's appropriate to the context. Our ability to be that flexible is the fruit of the practice of the Mind Module. Someone who's not actively practicing that process of taking and releasing perspectives misses something core in their whole life."

As mission statement for a blogger like me, this works. I've definitely tried, in the (most recent) case of Afghanistan for instance, to "take and release perspectives," when exploring a very complex situation. I didn't really have another "Taliban Dreams" "Mind-Module" in mind for this week, however, until that lone gunman tragically opened fire inside a medical building at Texas Army Base, Fort Hood, killing thirteen people and wounding thirty. Now everyone is busy searching for a motive.

What would have caused Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a devout Muslim and long-time counselor of soldiers suffering PTSD, to commit such an atrocity, randomly killing men and women preparing to deploy to Afghanistan? NB: it's the same question every American asked after 9/11: "Why do they hate us?" We didn't know the answer back then, and apparently we still haven't figured it out, even now.

Hasan, it seems, had been ordered to deploy in the Middle East, and was allegedly very stressed about it, having developed some sympathy along the way for suicide-bombers. It isn't rocket science to understand that being a devout Muslim and living comfortably in the U.S. while working for the military is one thing. But being mandated by your employer to go out and kill other Muslims--well, that is something that could become nervous-breakdown material. If you are a really devout Muslim, there is no way to cultivate a readiness for that. In fact, Hasan had asked to be discharged.

"Joe Public had no idea of the existence of an angry Mohammed Atta and a determined but patient Ziad Jarrah, both of them products of Jihadism," writes Walid Phares in "The War of Ideas." "In fact, average citizens in the West, including the United States, knew nothing about Jihadism at all." Eight years later, Americans still remain largely ignorant about the motives, intentions, and full reach of Jihadism to spread the word of Allah--not just within the Muslim world, but beyond. The massacre at Fort Hood last week, in terms of people's response, was not perceptibly different from the one immediately after 9/11. Once again, the hunt is on for "a possible motive."

I can remember being absolutely baffled, myself, the day it was reported that Taliban had blown up several huge, ancient, Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Statues aren't dangerous, I thought; they can't fight. Why would anybody want to attack them? Anyway they're Buddhist, not Christian. I really could not fathom the destructiveness.

What we in the West have so far failed to understand is the total, relentless, and irreversible attitude of Islamic fundamentalism. It is not another ideological vision that can be accommodated under the democratic umbrella of freedom and pluralism. Jihadism, pure and simple, opposes all other viewpoints, worldwide. It wants to dominate the entire planet, destroy the "democratic state" and its political institutions, replacing the Western system of international laws with dar el Islam (house of Islam). Symbols of other religions must be destroyed. Jihadists are willing to kill and die for the idea of reinstating the caliphate as the hub of civilization everywhere.

The way I see it, last week's atrocity brings into sharp focus the pressing need to educate the American public about the true nature of Jihadism. We still cannot fathom, as a people, how a fanatical religious ideology could be more compelling to someone than a life lived in freedom and prosperity. Given this limitation, we have been unable to take the full measure of our enemy. To get to that place will require a massive effort of education and attention. Otherwise all our responses will continue to be shaped, and ultimately doomed, by the same implacable incomprehension of what we are really up against.